Applicant Tracking Systems: 5 Things You Need to Know

When I became a Certified Professional Resume Writer a couple of years ago, I had never heard of an Applicant Tracking System, or ATS. I knew that many companies used software packages to allow candidates to upload their applications, and had used Penn State’s HR system as a member of several screening committees. That system was pretty basic, allowing committee members to view applications online as they screened them in whatever way their department prescribed, but if it had higher-level functions, we didn’t use them.

It wasn’t until I began following a discussion on a resume writers’ discussion forum that I learned how widespread Applicant Tracking Systems are, and how they can be used to mine data and determine a candidate’s match to a position. I left the discussion, though, with a clear understanding that I needed to learn more about these systems, if I wanted to be a better resume writer.

I’m still unclear on how colleges and universities are using Applicant Tracking Systems, and hope to interview some Human Resources professionals soon to learn more, but I have come to the conclusion that it is always best to write your resume with both the human reader and the computer in mind.

Computers and Humans Use Different Logic

Writing for a computer forces you to apply some different logic than writing for a human. I had learned this already in my efforts to understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and get better rankings on Google for my websites. Computers parse information differently than a human reader does. In some ways, software can be less forgiving than a human reader. As a result, simple mistakes in formatting, style, or word choice can cause the ATS to misinterpret information and return a low score for your match to a position. If you don’t get past the ATS, a real human might not see your resume!

For the past few months, I have been using a tool called Resumeter that emulates an Applicant Tracking System, and can help you identify the potential matches and gaps between your resume and a position description or job posting. It can also return reports that show you where errors in formatting are confusing the ATS, so you can reduce the possibility of information on your resume being misinterpreted or skipped over altogether.

Using a tool like this one takes some patience, because Applicant Tracking Systems are “smart enough to be dumb.”

Five things you need to keep in mind, and how to work around them:

  • Keywords matter. Applicant Tracking Systems apply some of the same principles that a search engine does. In particular, they look for keywords. When parsing information out of a document, an ATS will find exact matches, but may indicate information is missing, if it does not find an exact match. Some systems will give partial credit for related terms, some will not. Work-around: To maximize the possibility of being seen as a match, use the exact words you see in a position description or advertisement, whenever you can honestly and accurately do so.
  • Applicant Tracking System software is logical but not reasonable. I’ve had to learn when to edit the job description down to only the most important keywords (almost always). Since the software will be applying rules, not reason, you sometimes have to step in and apply kind of a “reasonable person” test and take your best guess at whether a term is a “required” term, a “preferred” term, or just some word that was stuck in there. This requires using the tool, seeing what the tool is not finding, and then going back to read the position description in context. Sometimes the tool is looking for a more complex word where you may have used a simpler one. Work-around: When this happens, you can change the word on your resume to the exact one being sought, or you can edit the job description in the tool to search for the simpler word instead, and hope that it won’t count against you in an actual application process.
  • Repeating yourself is a good thing. One thing I used to do when writing resumes was switch up wording here and there, because I played similar roles across different jobs. I didn’t want to bore the reader by seeming repetitive. Throw that idea out the window! Applicant Tracking  Systems, like search engines, score documents higher based on keyword density. So if you are applying to be an academic advisor, for example, don’t put in one bullet that you “advised” students and in another bullet that you “assisted” students. If you “advised” them here and “advised” them there, then maybe you can “advise” them anywhere.  Work-around: Use the word they are looking for whenever it applies, and you will get better results than going for variety.
  • Inconsistent formatting will confuse the software. Applicant Tracking Systems will parse information out of sections of your document, by looking for words commonly used in Headings, or words that seem to be headings (For example, single words in all capital letters or underlined and set apart from other information.) The ATS may find a blank line and interpret it as a section break. One area where I see this often is in the “Education” section. Let’s say that you have an advanced degree and wrote a thesis, so you list it under the graduate degree, maybe inset by a tab. Then you list your bachelor’s degree but do not have a parallel section there. Even worse, you have more than one graduate degree and you list your thesis the same way for both. I’ve seen the ATS get confused and start mismatching degrees to institutions and dates, and I’ve seen it think that the thesis was a separate degree and note it as missing dates and the issuing institution. Work-around: Tweak the format within each section and eliminate any extra line breaks, until the ATS at least records the correct degrees, dates and institutions, even if it lists some of the other information as “additional education.” Or you can move your thesis information into a “publications” or “research” section.
  • Where (and how) you list skills matters to the Applicant Tracking System. If you have many skills that you would like to list, you may be tempted to use a table. It’s a legitimate way to get a lot of information into a document. But there are legitimate reasons to list your skills in bullets, under specific positions. First, it helps in interpreting your skills in context. Second, many ATS systems give credit for one year of experience for each mention of a skill in a skills list, but will estimate length of experience listed in position-related bullets by looking at the dates you were in a position. They can tally up skills mentioned under multiple positions, and give a much better approximation of your experience. Work-around: Put skills in position-related bullets whenever possible.  Some ATS systems are confused by table formatting, and will skip tables altogether, which means that whatever you listed in the skipped table won’t count toward your potential match score. Work-around: If you use a skills list, do not use the “table” function in Word. Use the columns setting instead, or make columns using the tabs.

I’ll be writing some more posts soon about Applicant Tracking Systems, and how candidates can write their resumes to get through computerized screening measures. In the meantime, please share this article with anyone you think might be interested, and post your questions and comments.


  1. [...] Applicant Tracking Systems (also known as ATS) are highly sophisticated software packages that scan information in the résumé to determine the degree of match between an application and available positions. They do not simply look for keywords. Many can also read for terms in context, much like a human reader. For example, some screening programs are advanced enough to interpret how recent your experience is in a particular area, and rank you accordingly. Some can even relate relevant terms to other key terms or phrases. And they are at times a bit “picky” about how information is formatted. Some things to know about ATS that could result in your résumé being kicked out of the system, garbled, or ranked differently: [...]

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